A Massachusetts observatory unveiled a powerful new telescope on Tuesday designed to capture possible light signals transmitted to Earth by extraterrestrials.
The telescope is the first to be developed solely to search the skies for light pulses from aliens and will be able to cover 100,000 times the amount of sky covered by current equipment, its developers said.
"The opening of this telescope represents one of those rare moments in a field of scientific endeavor when a great leap forward is enabled," said Bruce Betts, project director at The Planetary Society, a group in Pasadena, California, that advocates space exploration and funded the telescope's development.
"Sending laser signals across the cosmos would be a very logical way for E.T. to reach out, but until now, we have been ill-equipped to receive any such signal," he said.
Researchers say alien civilizations may be as likely to use light signals to communicate as radio transmissions. Visible light can form tight beams and could potentially convey information more efficiently, Betts said.
The telescope was built at Harvard University's Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Oak Ridge Observatory, where the nonprofit Planetary Society has searched the depth of space for alien life using an 84-foot radio telescope.
The new telescope, located at the observatory at Harvard, Massachusetts, a town about 30 miles northwest of Boston, will vastly enhance the scope of the search for artificial light pulses, Betts said.
The telescope can process the equivalent of all books in print every second. As it scans the sky it uses a type of camera that can detect a billionth-of-a-second flash of light.
"We are going from looking at a few stars a night to an all-sky survey where over a year we will search the entire northern hemisphere," Betts said.
The telescope cost about $400,000 to build, much cheaper than a typical research-quality telescope.
Betts said that was partly because the telescope does not need to be as sensitive, and "they've done it on a shoestring budget by being clever."